"The waiting was like a death watch," Capital Coach Gary Green was saying. "If any organization anywhere deserves a break, this one does. I've said all along you have to work to make your breaks. Well, they worked for it. And look what happened. Where's the justice in the world?"

Green fixed his eyes on the floor and shook his head, a sad, sad silence filling the room. No reporter was willing to aggravate the hurt further by asking another question.

"Our players did all they could," the coach continued, the emotion rising in his face. "If there was any justice in the world these players wouldn't have to go through another summer like this. They did all they could.

"We work this hard all year long, along with the players, and this much agony is just too much to face."

At least last night the Caps did all they could. They shoved aside hapless Detroit, 7-2, then waited for Quebec to put them into the playoffs with a victory over Toronto. The Nordiques, already in the playoffs, couldn't.

When the victorious Caps skated off the ice, Toronto held a 3-2 lead going into the third period. The play-by-play from Quebec was on a radio in Green's tiny office. Several players and Green crammed inside. Others paced the dressing room floor like expectant fathers.

"What's the score?" and "How much time's left?" were the only questions asked. When the players had to return to the ice to pose and sign autographs for picture night, six minutes remained in the other game.

Bob Kelly refused to go anywhere. He stayed and listened to the end. "You gotta listen 'till the end," he said. "You gotta hope."

By the time his teammates returned, Toronto had won, 4-2, and claimed the 16th and final playoff spot. The Capitals' spot. Some players remained on the ice signing autographs for 90 minutes. Maybe conversing with their fans helped ease the hurt.

"It was tough to stand there and sign autographs," Rick Green said. "But this is nothing new. It's the same old story. We're still learning the hard way. You just can't leave it up to somebody else to get you into the playoffs. It's frustrating. But I've had this feeling before.

"There's no way we shouldn't have made the playoffs. We deserve better. A while ago I said to myself, 'Maybe it's fate.' I just said whatever's gonna be, will be."

So, for the seventh straight spring, the Capitals said each goodbye to each other early. "If you're in New York, stop by and see me. I've got plenty of room," one said to another. "Yeah, well if you find yourself in Ontario, look me up," came the reply.

The individual accolades didn't matter. Dennis Marak said he would trade every one of his 50 goals, including the three he scored last night, for a chance to be in the playoffs.

Maruk, the only man in the team's history to score 50 goals, said he tried to forget about the Toronto game, but couldn't help hearing the scores as they were shouted through the stands. He said it only made him play harder.

In the waning minutes of the Toronto game, Maruk sat at his locker listening for a Quebec rally that would never come.

"All I want is the playoffs," he said. "That's all I want. Please, God help us."